Education for Few JAYATI GHOSH (JNU, Delhi)

The new education bill proposed by the UPA will exclude disadvantaged groups from quality schooling and pass the burden to cash-strapped State governments.

In all the often heated debates about the strategy of development for India, there is one issue on which there seems to be consensus among all – the need to provide universal and good quality education at school-level to all our children. There is good reason for this consensus, which emerges from some very different initial positions with respect to other matters of society and economics. At one level, education is a fundamental human right, without which capabilities for a decent life and effective participation in society are less likely to be developed. Therefore, all our citizens deserve equitable access to a public school education system of reasonable quality.

There is the equally important point about the nature of the society we wish to have. The primary purpose of education is to build a truly humane society – democratic and egalitarian, tolerant of diversity and yet with some shared human values – and to allow all citizens to unleash their full potential and live with dignity.

This implies that school education up to a certain level (ideally 10 or 12 years) must be accessible to all, and that differences in the quality of provision should not be such that they create social inequalities or monopolization by any group.

But even those who are less likely to adopt a rights-based approach to development or accept the importance of universal education for a good society, still recognize the critical significance of investing in education. This is because they know that for sustained growth and all-round economic progress, an educated labour force is absolutely essential. And as economic tasks become more complex, interdependent and require different kinds of literacy and numeracy, the importance of higher levels of education also grows. All the current talk of creating a “knowledge society” is based on the realization that education must be a major focus of public intervention.

Therefore, until quite recently it was the case that even those who otherwise debunked public expenditure in general, accepted the need for public spending on and provision of basic education. Additionally, in recent times, some of the recognition of the need for more investment in education is also because of the buzz about the “demographic dividend”.

This is the fact that our relatively young population can become a huge asset when most of the rest of the world’s population is aging, and this difference in demographic structure can create a large positive potential for faster growth. (Of course, this in turn presupposes that productive work can be found for all of those of working age.)

Yet it is precisely in the sphere of ensuring equitable access to quality education for our people that the development project in India has been conspicuously lacking thus far. Even today, the official gross enrolment ratios for children aged between six and 14 is around 80 per cent, and effective enrolment is much less. Currently, only 56 per cent of children aged between five and nine are attending school, according to Census data.

More tellingly, dropout rates are very high; less than half of the children who join Class I actually complete Class VIII, and much less than 10 per cent pass the higher secondary examination. The situation is even worse because of social and economic divisions, which reduce access. For example, more than 80 per cent of Scheduled Caste girls and 90 per cent of Scheduled Tribe girls who join Class I do not complete Class X.

This is largely because of huge under provision and poor quality provision in the government school system, such that those who cannot afford to attend private schools are either unable or unwilling to attend school, and are often deprived of access altogether.

Some of this is because of the very large infrastructure gaps in the public education system in the country. There are still large numbers of villages and urban settlements without government schools in the approachable vicinity.

There is also substantial overcrowding in existing schools. According to the National Sample Survey, more than 30 per cent of primary schools do not have any proper buildings, and another 20 per cent function out of only one room, which clearly affects both the quality and effectiveness of teaching in such schools. The average number of instructional classrooms across all schools is only two.

The inadequacy of other basic infrastructure (separate toilets for girls and boys, clean drinking water supply, electrical fittings and fans and so on) not to mention advanced teaching aids, including computers, is also well-established not only for many primary schools but also for a substantial proportion of secondary schools and institutions of higher learning.

Then of course there is the shortage of teachers, which forces many students at different levels to be taught by one teacher. According to a study by the National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration, even now, up to 13 per cent of all elementary schools are single-teacher schools. Nearly 10 per cent of schools do not have even one blackboard. More than half do not have a book bank, not to mention a library. Only 7 per cent of schools have computers.

Part of the reason for this abysmal state of affairs is that there was no compulsion upon either Central or State governments to provide universal education. The faith expressed in Article 45 of the Constitution, making a commitment of the state to provide free and compulsory education to children up to 14 years of age, did not translate into any justiciable right. Most critically, successive versions of draft legislation have failed to make it a justiciable right or to ensure the financial resources for the government to provide universal schooling.

It is against this background that the Right to Education Bill, 2005, was formulated. This Bill has had a tortuous history. The 86th Constitutional Amendment Act, passed in 2002, inserted Article 21A in Part III (Fundamental Rights) which declared that “the state shall provide free and compulsory education to all children of the age 6-14 years in such manner as the state may by law determine.” This set the stage for the Right to Education Bill. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government provided flawed draft Bills which effectively legitimised different “streams” of education, with low quality provision for underprivileged sections, and heavy reliance on privatisation.

The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in turn provided a more acceptable Bill, which still had a number of problems and also diluted the right to education in several ways. However, it also had certain strengths, such as some move towards a common schooling system by which all schools, including private schools, would have to take 25 per cent of students from among underprivileged children in the vicinity. This reflected the recommendations of the Education Commission in the 1960s that bringing different social classes and groups together would promote an egalitarian and integrated society.

However, this draft Bill gathered dust, apparently in the Prime Minister’s Office, for more than 10 months, and was not introduced in successive sessions of Parliament. It has now come to light that the Central government has decided to shelve this altogether, and instead has formulated a model Bill which has been sent to all State governments for them to enact.

Further, according to the letter sent by the Secretary for School Education to the State governments, only States which adopt the model bill in toto will continue to receive 75 per cent funding for the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan – all others will have the Central allocation cut to 50 per cent!

Quite apart from the undemocratic nature of this offer, this reneges on the commitment made in the Constitutional Amendment, since the Central government is now taking no financial responsibility for ensuring the right to education. It is ridiculous to expect cash-strapped State governments to be able to provide the resources for this. Only the Central government can and must provide the relatively large financial outlays that are required to meet this absolutely essential public commitment.

The model Bill that has been proposed is even more appalling – it removes any mention of common schooling, places no requirements upon private schools, and does not actually recognise the right to education. It says that any parents/guardians who choose to admit their children to a non-free quota in a school (for whatever reason, for however short a time) shall not have any claim on the State for free education for their children.

It allows for “alternative” non-formal education for children for reasons of disability, or disadvantage, or nature of occupation of parents, thereby creating the possibilities for all sorts of exclusion by class and social group. In sum, it is a Bill of exclusion rather than inclusion, a complete denial of rights.

So here we have an extraordinary situation – a Central government that has publicly committed to ensuring the right to education, working surreptitiously and bypassing Parliament in order to push State-level legislation which completely undermines the notion of that right.

The irony is that this is in all probability driven by the same people who have been opposing caste-based quotas in higher education, on the grounds that it is first necessary to ensure access to quality school education to disadvantaged groups. Unfortunately, while increasing and universalizing access to quality education are critical for the health of our society and its future, we still have to contend with elites and an establishment who are determined to prevent it.